The number ones: "One Sweet Day"

Friday 8 April 2022

The number ones: One Sweet Day |
You can't just talk about "One Sweet Day" as a song. Any discussion of "One Sweet Day" has to start and end with its absolutely insane run atop the Billboard Hot 100. Today, "One Sweet Day" isn't really Boyz II Men's biggest hit, and it's definitely not Mariah Carey's biggest hit. But "One Sweet Day" absolutely owned the Hot 100 for four solid months, longer than any single that had come before. "One Sweet Day" went on to hold that chart-champion title for 23 solid years. Hit songs can be ephemeral, but hits songs that transcend the metrics of hit songs are supposed to last forever. That hasn't really happened with "One Sweet Day", and it's worth asking why.

Chart records are made to be broken, and in the early '90s, they were broken over and over again. When Billboard started using SoundScan to figure out the Hot 100, hits almost immediately started racking up longer and longer runs at #1. Over a few years, lots of songs had unprecedented stays at the top - 13 weeks for "End Of The Road", 14 weeks apiece for "I Will Always Love You" and "I'll Make Love To You". That trend reached its apex with "One Sweet Day", the chart colossus that simply could not be beaten until, finally, it was.

Plenty of factors went into the success of "One Sweet Day". Mariah Carey was already on top of the world when she released the track as the second single from her Daydream album, and like "Fantasy" before it, "One Sweet Day" debuted at #1. ("One Sweet Day" was the fourth single - and the third consecutive chart-topper - to debut atop the Hot 100. Labels had figured out that they could release a song to radio, build up interest, and then release the single.) Mariah and Boyz II Men were huge stars at their peaks, and a collaboration like that will always feel like an event. The "One Sweet Day" single also came out during the holiday season, when the pop charts tend to grow relatively static. More than anything else, though, "One Sweet Day" was a sentimental ballad about a dead friend. Songs like that have a universal appeal; we all know what it's like to mourn someone. In the '90s, ballads like that were especially dominant; pretty soon, we'll see more songs like that in this column. In any case, "One Sweet Day" was one perfect storm.

When Mariah Carey started writing "One Sweet Day", she was thinking about one friend in particular. Early in 1995, David Cole, a producer who's been in this column as half of C+C Music Factory, died from complications of AIDS at the age of 32. Cole and his C+C Music Factory partner Robert Clivill├ęs had first worked with Mariah on her 1991 LP Emotions, and they'd co-written and co-produced that album's chart-topping title track with Mariah. Mariah had gotten especially close with Cole during those sessions.

When Cole died, Mariah was also worried about her older sister Alison, who'd also tested positive for HIV. They were never especially close, but the thought of losing her sister hit Mariah hard. Alison is still alive today, though she and Mariah no longer speak. In her 2020 memoir, Mariah repeatedly refers to Alison as "my ex-sister". In any case, all of that was going through Mariah's mind when she and her regular collaborator Walter Afanasieff started writing "One Sweet Day".

Mariah and Afanasieff intentionally left "One Sweet Day" unfinished. While they were coming up with the song's chorus, Mariah decided that the song would work a whole lot better with Boyz II Men's voices on it, and she wanted to finish writing the song with the group. Mariah and her people set up a meeting with Boyz II Men. When they heard "One Sweet Day", Boyz II Men were shocked. Group member Nathan Morris had already been working on a very similar song - same theme, same tempo, same sort of melody. Boyz II Men's in-progress song was a goodbye to Khalil Rountree, their late tour manager. In 1992, when Boyz II Men were on tour with MC Hammer, the 36-year-old Rountree was shot and killed in a Chicago hotel when some of the hotel's employees tried to rob him. His loss left the group shaken, and this new song was Morris' attempt to process that loss.

In the end, Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff worked together to combine those two songs of loss, hers and the one that Nathan Morris was writing, into one track. The members of Boyz II Men helped out, and all four of them got writing credits along with Walter Afanasieff. In its final form, "One Sweet Day" doesn't read as a song about David Cole or Khalil Rountree. Instead, it's a generic song about mourning someone and looking forward to seeing that person again in the afterlife: "I know you're shining down on me from Heaven, like so many friends we've lost along the way. And I know eventually we'll be together one sweet day."

Mariah and Boyz II Men were both extremely busy when they recorded "One Sweet Day", so they had to get the whole thing done quickly. There was no time to make a proper video, so director Larry Jordan brought cameras into the studio on the day that Mariah and Boyz II Men recorded the songs. Walter Afanasieff recalls the sessions being frantic and chaotic because there were cameras everywhere and because the singers were all having fun goofing around together. Afanasieff was terrified that they wouldn't finish the song in time, but everyone nailed their parts in time for Boyz II Men to go do whatever they had to do that night. Mariah, worried about her voice being overwhelmed, added more vocals of her own afterwards.

There's a world where "One Sweet Day" is a simple, elegant song about the sadness and yearning and hope that surround the death of a loved one. In that world, though, "One Sweet Day" probably wouldn't have held the #1 spot in a chokehold for 16 straight weeks. In any case, that's our world. In our world, "One Sweet Day" is a product of its time. "One Sweet Day" came out in a mid-'90s stretch when overwrought, oversung ballads ruled the pop charts, and by being more overwrought and oversung than any of its competitors, "One Sweet Day" dunked on all of them.

The "One Sweet Day" production, from Afanasieff and Mariah herself, is purely utilitarian in that mid-'90s adult-contempo R&B way - echo all over the drums, sustain all over the keyboards, enough open space that the singers' voices can just run wild all over everything. And that's absolutely what they do. I think that Mariah gets a bad rap for the way that she's always used melisma. More often than not, I'd argue, she's deployed it effectively, in ways that served the songs while still showcasing the things she was capable of doing with her voice. But on "One Sweet Day", it sounds like she's trying to compete with the members of Boyz II Men - like everyone is in a race to see how many notes they can cram into each line.

If it's a competition, then Mariah wins; she probably gets 18 different syllables out of the world "smile". For me, though, that sheer display of technique cheapens "One Sweet Day" and makes the song feel weirdly self-serving. The song has a nice, sturdy central hook, and it helps that it's got all five singers joining in together on that chorus rather than ad-libbing over each other's leads. But the rest of the song gets lost in the sheer bombast of those five insanely gifted singers all flexing on each other. There's a lot of gospel in the arrangement of "One Sweet Day", and as with gospel, we're supposed to get a feeling of transcendence from hearing all those voices cutting loose. But it's never worked for me. The self-satisfaction of those performances overwhelms the song itself, or maybe the song just isn't good enough to shine through all the vocal curlicues.

I generally consider myself to be a big ol' sap, and I just lost my dad about a month ago, so I should be an easy mark for a song like "One Sweet Day". But the song left me cold in that stretch, between 1995 and 1996, when it beat the rest of the pop chart into submission, and it still leaves me cold today. I wish I could connect with "One Sweet Day", but it's never worked for me.

Considering the vaguely prestige-y sheen on "One Sweet Day", as well as its utter commercial dominance, it would've seemed like a pretty good bet to clean up at the 1996 Grammys. That show went down when the song was still sitting comfortably at #1. "One Sweet Day" got a Record Of The Year nomination, and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men opened the show by performing it together. But Mariah Carey was completely shut out of the awards that year. She lost to Seal and Alanis Morissette and Annie Lennox and Joni Mitchell. "One Sweet Day" lost Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals to the Chieftans and Van Morrison's version of "Have I Told You Lately". The whole experience pissed Mariah off mightily, and she didn't perform on the Grammys again until 2006.

In 1997, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men sang "One Sweet Day" again at Princess Diana's memorial, which is kind of weird to think about. (The death of Diana will figure into this column soon.) Over the years, though, "One Sweet Day" didn't really linger in the way so many other Mariah Carey songs have lingered. Spotify streams are an imperfect metric, but it's worth noting that Boyz II Men have a couple of songs with more streams than "One Sweet Day", and Mariah Carey has a lot of them. A few Mariah Carey songs that didn't even hit #1 have more streams than "One Sweet Day", and "One Sweet Day" barely has a tenth as many streams as the Mariah holiday classic that'll eventually appear in this column. It's not that "One Sweet Day" isn't popular; plenty of people love it. But it's not the cultural touchstone that its chart success might lead you to expect.

More than anything else, "One Sweet Day" was a moment. Thanks to sentimentality, name recognition, and cross-format radio compatibility, "One Sweet Day" was able to lord over the Hot 100 for longer than almost any other song in history. A song's success always comes down to timing. A hit song doesn't have to last forever; it just has to be a hit. For decades and decades, "One Sweet Day" was the one hit to rule them all. It could've happened to a better song, but it didn't. "One Sweet Day" came along at a moment when Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men were twin cresting waves. Those waves kept going. Both Mariah and Boyz II Men will appear in this column again.


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